Two former Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) employees and a Saudi national have been charged with helping the Saudi Arabian government spy on dissidents who used the social network. Two of the men were charged with acting as agents of a foreign power inside the United States. The third man reportedly acted served as an intermediary between one of the Twitter employees and Saudi officials.
Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, was a Twitter engineer with access to the personal information and account data of millions of the social media service’s users. According to the complaint, Saudi intelligence operatives persuaded him to give them information about the accounts of users they sought information on, mainly activists and critics of the crown. Twitter placed Mr. Alzabarah on administrative leave after being notified of the breach of security.
Ahmad Abouammo, an American citizen, was a media partnerships manager with access to the email addresses and phone numbers of Twitter accounts. He is accused of providing the email addresses and phone numbers of Saudi critics to an unnamed Saudi official. The Saudi government compensated Mr. Abouammo with a series of wire transfers totaling at least $300,000.
Prosecutors say Mr. Alzabarah, 35 and Mr. Abouammo, 41, were recruited by a third Saudi, Ahmed Almutairi, 30, who was working on behalf of the royal family. Almutairi ran a Saudi social media marketing company for the members of the Saudi royal family. Both Mr. Alzabarah and Mr. Abouammo left Twitter in 2015. Only Abouammo was arrested, as the other two are not in the U.S., officials said.
Saudi Arabia is one of Twitter’s five most active markets. It has been a popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. But Saudi operatives have also used Twitter to harass critics. Human rights organizations have recorded dozens of Twitter-related prosecutions in Saudi Arabia.